Tips for Managing Stress and Family During the Holidays

The holidays have been a source of stress for me for as long as I can remember.

12.22.16
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The holidays have been a source of stress for me for as long as I can remember. Being around my parents and extended family turns me into a sensitive, emotional mess. There are such high expectations surrounding holiday gatherings that something, without fail, is bound to go wrong.

I used to think that it was just me and my family, but it turns out, it isn’t. Two out of every three Americans report feeling stressed, overwhelmed and depressed during the holidays. With Thanksgiving in our rearview mirror and a new year just around the corner, I reached out to Dr. Dale Atkins, a licensed psychologist and relationship expert, for tips on how to manage stress and family.

In what came dangerously close to a personal therapy session, I told Dr. Dale the things that, for me, contribute to stress during the holidays. I love and respect my parents deeply, and it makes me feel really guilty when I allow myself to selfishly get stressed out about being together for the holidays. “When did spending time with family become so difficult?,” I asked.

“One of the main issues that contributes to stress during the holidays has to do with expectations. I often suggest [that you internalize] what your boundaries will be [while at home]. Think about what you are willing or unwilling to engage in,” Dr. Dale said.

When I go home, I want everything to go perfectly. I want my mom to feel appreciated and my dad to feel understood. I want that warm, fuzzy feeling of family, but eventually, something happens that throws our harmony off. And so I write the script: I assume that past holidays will be determinant of future ones, and I go into every situation sensitive and on edge.

“Instead,” Dr. Dale suggested, “approach time with family from a position of empathy. Ask yourself: what do my parents want to get out of this weekend, and what can I do to make it easier and more connected?”

It’s important to realize that there’s a generational divide between how millennials feel connected, versus how their parents do. I’m sensitive to the fact that when my parents see me reaching for my phone, they interpret this as a signal of boredom. They think that I’m placing more importance on a piece of technology than on quality time with them.

Social media helps many of us feel more connected and, interestingly, less lonely. A study found that posting a Facebook update, even if nobody engages with it, helped alleviate feelings of loneliness. For our parents — a generation that’s significantly less tech-savvy — seeing their kids on their phones is interpreted as a need to detach and disconnect. “It says to them: I’m not really here. I’ve got one foot in my other world,” says Dr. Dale. Both parties need to be sensitive to these cues.

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Try to resist the urge to slip into an unhealthy, if comfortable, narrative. “I always tell my patients to act as a reporter who’s just landed on another planet when they go home. Talk to people in a different way. Get a little history about someone in your family. Get a sense of your parents before they were parents. Go in with a curiosity about them! Hit the reset button and change your mindset,” she suggested.

Our conversation also turned to money. For millennials, finances are more of an issue than they’ve been for any generation since the Depression. We’re saddled with crippling student loans and the average indebtedness, which hovers somewhere under $40,000, doesn’t even take into account the fact that more than half of millennials report being underemployed in 2016. In light of our less-than-stellar financial situations, many of us are getting help from our families, and that may not feel so comfortable come holiday time.

If the conversation does turn to money, it’s important that you clarify whether something is a loan or a gift — and establish from the get-go whether there are any strings attached to accepting help from parents. This may seem uncomfortable initially, but it will go a long way in avoiding raised eyebrows when you splurge on a really nice (but expensive) shirt or take a long-awaited trip.

Most importantly, Dr. Dale suggested, “keep your finger on your pulse. Read something calming and inspirational. Take a walk. Cook. Spend time in nature. Be aware of your triggers and — as far as you can control it — don’t let a situation get out of hand.”

So, now that I’ve aired some family dysfunction of my own: What do holidays at your house look like? What stresses you out, and how do you manage it?

Illustrations by Maria Jia Ling Pitt; follow her on Instagram @heysuperstar.

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  • Leslie Ortiz

    I am stressed for you Helena! I moved to Hawaii from NYC about 2 years ago and have not returned home for the holidays since. Maybe I am avoiding them because it is super stressful and expensive! Your piece reminds me that I will have to figure out how to be with them when I do visit. Even coming home from college for the holidays was exhausting but I love my family. I think the time we spend with them has to be strategic with lots of deep breathing.

  • Grace B

    I have spent Thanksgiving with family but I haven’t been home for Christmas for 5 years. I miss it but I’m grateful for a) going home in the “off season” which is typically much less stressful and b) getting to host family when they visit me and having my own adult bed to retire to.

    Also, in the last year, I got into the habit of saying, “I need a break” — from the family member, from the group activity, etc. People respect my need for alone time thankfully. And I make sure to get enough of it in my day to day life so that when I do have big blocks of family time, I don’t feel like I’m making a Big Sacrifice.

  • November and December are a whirlwind for my husband and I. Living so far from family and being from different countries, it means jumping between two different continents over a six week period.

    That said, visiting my father and step mother, and in-laws is great. It’s exhausting but I love catching up with them and it’s an all around enjoyable time. It’s navigating the emotional waters of visiting my mum that puts the most stress on us during the holiday season. More often than not it ends in one or both of us in tears and me drinking heavily to stave off the anxiety of being around her for more than a few days. So don’t worry, Helena, we all have our own family-related dysfunctions 😉

  • Alicia McElhaney

    Ooooo all the food, the lack of routine, constant comments from relatives…YIKES! I try to take time to go to a yoga class at a local studio, and make sure to spend time alone when I go home. It’s always crazy stressful!

  • Samantha Lee

    Surprisingly the stress has been kept to a minimum so far. That being said, I’ve only been home for two days. ;p
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